A medical support unit in Laois who is quietly doing vital volunteer work during Covid-19, has launched its first ever online fundraiser because it is running out of money.
The Laois unit of the Order of Malta, based in Portlaoise is made up of over 20 trained ambulance and first aid volunteers who give their free time for duties like bringing cancer patients for treatments, supporting people with disabilities and now people confined to home due to Covid-19.
Incredibly, with two ambulances and a jeep to run while supporting the HSE and patients, the group, which also trains a unit of dedicated young cadet volunteers, gets no government funding.
Below: Lieut Marie Carroll preparing the vehicles to aid colleagues in the HSE.
Money for diesel and other costs is normally raised by going on duty for emergencies at festivals and sporting events but that income is gone for now due to Covid-19 restrictions, while at the same time their work has become more vital than ever.
The Order of Malta is the oldest volunteer organisation in the world, 903 years old and its Christian ethos is to do its work quietly without any fanfare. However, the Laois branch have been forced by Covid-19 to seek public support. A month ago they launched their first Gofundme account.
With a target of €10,000 they have only received less than €500 so far, with a long road ahead.
Des Thornton who in his day job is a clinical engineer for the HSE, is the order's ambulance officer and community officer. Like others he is still working and volunteering on his time off to help others during the Covid-19 restrictions.
“We are doing ambulance transfers, runs for medicines and shopping, We visit the elderly that people with mental disabilities to check on them. A lot won't ring in looking for food, they would nearly starve first, they don't like bothering people, it's sad.
“We are doing a lot more transports to Dublin hospitals, especially for cancer patients that can't sit on public transport now. We sit and wait for them, we can bring them into the door until they are settled and just be a support to them. If you are on your own it's hard to get the train and then a taxi. It's a lot for someone going through chemo and radiotherapy. Some have 20 or 30 sessions, five days a week.
“There is very little in our kitty now. Sometimes a social worker for a client will cover the diesel cost, but we spent €200 to €300 a week on diesel, then there is insurance, we are exempt from tax as emergency vehicles, but insurance is a lot and we have to pay mechanics.” he said.
The branch had the foresight to buy extra masks earlier this year and always use gloves and sanisitiser but money for more PPE is needed.
“We are asking for support to enable us continue our charitable activities in our community at this critical time,” said Mr Thornton.
The Portlaoise branch has helped Donald Pavis from Portlaoise to get his treatment. His neighbour normally drives him to the hospital in Dublin but she is cocooning at the moment.
“I was very worried about how I was going to get to St James Hospital by myself. But I felt very much at ease when the offer came from the Order of Malta to drive me there and back.
“The driver Des took care of everything from checking in to talking to the doctors on leaving. He even went to pick up my prescription from town when I got home. He went above and beyond his call of duty. Des was very pleasant and made everything soo much more comfortable for me. The care Grace gave on the journey up and back was very comforting. Thank you,” he said.
Des Thornton, ambulance officer and community officer with Portlaoise Order of Malta.
His neighbour's daughter is Nicola Darby.
“He wouldn't have had such a comfortable or stress free experience had it not been for Des and Grace,” she said.
Her son Ethan Murtagh, 15, is a cadet. While teens are unable to help the Order at present, she said they are encouraging the cadets to do good deeds for neighbours and help where they can.
“Before the pandemic the Order of Malta Ambulance Corp did at huge amount of voluntary work in the community. They were all hands on during the beast from the east, doing medical runs and bringing health care staff to work safely. During this pandemic they have been at their best again. No ask was too small or too big.
“They carry out these jobs and acts of kindness while also working themselves. They are true role models for the cadets who walk in to their HQ here on Portlaoise.
“We see thank yous to doctors and nurses but we believe these guys should also be commended for their love and care they show in their community.
“They are the most dedicated and kind hearted people I've had the pleasure of knowing and I'd love them to get the recognition they deserve at least,” she said.
The Order of Malta Ambulance Corps volunteers supports the HSE, National Ambulance Service, County Councils and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is listed as a ‘Voluntary Emergency Services’ available to the HSE.